Common Problems and Issues of Succulents

Succulents have relatively few pest and disease issues.  Scout plants frequently to catch problems early and treat them before they become severe.

Over Watering  |  Under Watering  |  Root Rot  |  Insufficient Light  |  Sun Damage  |  Mealybugs  |  Dead Lower Leaves  |  More Information

When light is insufficient leaves of succulents like Echeveria will often lay flat and develop a pale color
When light is insufficient, leaves of succulents like Echeveria will often lay flat and develop a pale color

Over Watering

One of the most common issues when growing succulents is overwatering.  Plants that are growing in wet conditions will have yellowing leaves as well as soft and mushy leaves and stems.  Over time, leaves will drop off.  The soil surface will be wet or damp to the touch and when severe you will see mold or fungus gnats.  Stop watering if over-watering is suspected.  Allow the soil to dry out thoroughly between waterings.  Make sure the container has a drainage hole that excess water can freely drain from and ensure that trays or sleeves are not left full of water.  If soil is too organic or fine-textured, it will hold too much water.  Repot with sharp-draining soil. 

Under Watering

While succulents can go for weeks and sometimes longer with no water, there comes a point where things can get too dry!  When underwatered, leaves often turn yellow, shrivel, and brown before dropping off.  Stems and leaves may become wrinkled and mottled.  Roots die due to lack of water and then when succulents are finally watered again, may not recover well because the root mass is not large enough to provide adequate moisture.  Check plants frequently and water when the soil is dry to the touch.  One method to determine if plants need water utilizes a chopstick.  Insert a chopstick into the soil and if it comes out with moisture on it, as indicated by a darker color, then the plant does not yet need to be irrigated.

Root Rot

Root rot typically develops from too much water in the soil.  Oxygen levels in water-logged soil are lower causing roots to die.  With fewer roots to absorb water, plants begin to show symptoms of water stress by dropping leaves or shriveling up.  These symptoms are often confused for underwatering and more water is added further exacerbating the problem.  Allow the soil to dry thoroughly between waterings. Sometimes plants can recover from root rot when allowed to dry out.  Other times the rot is so advanced that the plant cannot recover.  Discard the plant or propagate healthy-looking segments. Setting up a wet-dry cycle where the soil is completely wetted and then allowed to completely dry out is the best way to avoid root rot in succulents.


Low light levels can cause succulents like this Echeveria to stretch and produce lanky new growth.
Low light levels can cause succulents like this Echeveria to stretch and produce lanky new growth.

Insufficient Light

Tall, spindly, lanky new growth that is pale in color is an indication that light levels are too low.  Those succulents with rosette growth forms often open up and leaves flatten out in an effort to collect more light.  If light levels are too low move plants to a location that receives more light.  When grown indoors, succulents need abundant bright, indirect light.  Ideally, plants receive ten or more hours of light a day.  If a bright enough location cannot be found by a window, then provide supplemental light utilizing high output, full-spectrum fluorescent or LED grow lights.  Set plants within 12 inches of the light source and put lights on a timer to turn on for 12 to 16 hours a day.  Some species of succulents will recover from low light conditions over time and others will require pruning or cut back to remove lanky growth and allow new growth to form under sufficient light.  Other species, in particular many barrel-type cacti, will develop misshapen, narrow spindly growth that will permanently be with the plant even if more light is introduced.

Sun Damage

Brown or tan patches that form on leaves and/or stems, especially interior leaves or on new growth, are common symptoms of sun scald or sun damage.  The primary cause of sun scaled is when succulents are exposed for a length of time to low light levels and then suddenly transitioned to bright or direct sunlight.  Most succulents appreciate protection from the hot afternoon sun and most do best in bright, indirect light.  The dead areas burned by the bright light will not recover, and typically leaves with sun scald will eventually drop.  Stems with sun scald damage will callus over creating a permanent scar.  Transition succulents to new light conditions slowly to avoid damage in the future.

Mealybug on plant
Mealybug looks like cottony masses often clustered along stems and leaf veins.
Brown lower leaves on otherwise healthy plants is normal as seen on this flapjack plant (Kalanchoe luciae).
Brown lower leaves on otherwise healthy plants are normal as seen on this flapjack plant (Kalanchoe luciae).


Cottony masses, especially along the veins of leaves and where leaves and stems join, are signs of mealybug.  This insect pest feeds on the plant sap and exudes a sticky substance called honeydew that covers lower leaves and surrounding tabletops and floors. Scout plants frequently for these insects and treat them as soon as they are noticed.  Isolate plants to prevent them from infecting other succulents nearby.  Rinsing foliage and physically removing the cottony masses can help reduce the infestation.  Spray insects with a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol or dab with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol.  Multiple applications are often needed for complete control.  Pesticides like Neem and insecticidal soap can be used.  Apply as instructed on the label.  Most infestations will take multiple applications to get complete control.  If infestations are severe and cannot be controlled, discard the plant to keep it from infecting nearby plants.

Dead Lower Leaves

Lower leaves on many succulents, especially those with a rosette growth habit, will occasionally dry completely and fall off.  If the plant is otherwise healthy and growing well, a dried-up lower leaf or two is nothing to cause concern.  Simply remove the leaf.

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Last reviewed:
August 2023